Monday, December 6, 2010

Our Eco-econo Logical Survival

Last night I made sure to watch 60 Minutes because of the advertised interview with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, but it was the conversation between Scott Pelley and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that got my attention. Homo sapiens is perhaps unique in not only having to address its ecological survival, but also its economic survival. After hearing Bernanke’s prognostication for our immediate financial future, I’m beginning to wonder if we are not in peril on the economic front as well as the climatological one.

I have to say that I trust Ben Bernanke to not make dishonest statements about short-term and long-range economic forecasts as he perceives them. That is why it was truly sobering to learn that he does not anticipate any great decrease in the unemployment rate for a minimum of four or five years. From the perspective of our American society at large, I am confident we can weather the storm and doldrums, but on an individual level I am feeling a bit shaky.

My part-time employment will end around the first week of May, 2011, and the unemployment compensation that is supplementing that income will no doubt expire even sooner. Having only a high school diploma does not heighten my chances of re-employment at any meaningful wage, as Bernanke mentioned in his interview.

When Scott Pelley pointed out that the gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S. is the greatest it has been in some time, Bernanke laid the blame largely on a disparity in education levels. For those with a college degree, unemployment is about 5%, said Bernanke, adding that unemployment is almost double that for people with only a high school diploma. While I personally think this is mostly a sorry excuse for an explanation of inequitable distribution of wealth, the implicit message was even more disheartening and unrealistic, if not irresponsible.

Bernanke’s apparent solution for the unemployed and underemployed is to go back to school and get new skills or enhance existing ones. In other words: go into debt to get ahead. This is in part what got us into trouble in the first place: personal debt. No worries, Bernanke plans to keep the lid on low interest rates, encouraging borrowing (while rendering savings accounts, Certificates of Deposit, and other responsible financial behavior worthless).

I am by no means an economist. I didn’t even do very well in that course in college. All I know is that the current banking establishment and financial administration reigning from the Fed are *not* operating in my best interests. Literally! Interest on my savings is appallingly low. There are no products that keep my assets liquid in case of emergency, while offering any kind of return on my investment….but I digress.

Most people cannot afford to return to school in any sense of the word. They can’t afford it financially, and they can’t afford the time out of the workforce (though most adult students work at least part-time while going to school, this wears one out physically, emotionally, and intellectually). We need to resurrect an apprenticeship approach to re-employment. The “guilds” of the Renaissance sound mighty appealing about now. The idea that one could produce something meaningful and useful while accruing new skills is also what the old WPA was all about. We need a “new” New Deal.

This is where we could also address our ecological survival. Train people to produce and install solar panels, rainwater harvesting cisterns, and other sustainable technologies that lead to a more sustainable, less consumer-oriented society. Make peace profitable. Hire defense contractors to begin disarming our nuclear weapons. Start with the hair-trigger ICBMs that still loom in silos, one false-alarm away from throwing us into nuclear winter. Make community gardens a priority so that neighborhoods can take back ownership of their diet, nutrition, and food quality. Build affordable housing. We can have a bright future, but we might have to buck the system to achieve some of it. The finances will follow, though, as our collective will prevails.

Full disclosure: I am personally debt-free, have no credit cards, and do not own a private vehicle. I rent an apartment. I have an account at a bank and a credit union. Were ATMs more convenient through the credit union, I would not have an account at a commercial bank.


  1. I fully agree with your ideas, but here is one sobering fact: in Germany education is free, apprenticeship is the way to go instead of many of the college-degree careers here and unemployment money is extended through times of back-to-school. Yet, the unemployment numbers are higher than here. I say numbers, because everyone is being counted, not just the recent, short-term unemployed.

  2. I am sympathetic to your views, Eric, and Margarethe reminds us that there are other systems that work better in some ways, maybe not in others, than ours. A big question I have that I've never seen discussed -- what will be the fate of non-profit orgs (for which we both work) in an eco-friendly, slow growth or even steady state (if population ever stabilizes) economy?